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Bird Flu Research Illustrates Dual-Use Issues


And in other news, a scientific journal has finally published the details of how to make mutant forms of bird flu. These viruses were created last year by a lab that's trying to stay one step ahead of a possible flu pandemic, so that the world can get ready. The work, though, is highly controversial. Critics say the man-made viruses pose serious risks: the germs could escape, or be used as a bio weapon.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the government is now grappling with a challenge: how to manage the risks of this kind of research without blocking scientific progress.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The controversy over mutant bird flu has raged for months. Some of the headlines have been scary: Doomsday Virus, Super-flu. Of course, scientists did the work in an effort to protect the public. This is an extreme example of something called the dual-use dilemma.

CARRIE WOLINETZ: Dual use research in the life sciences really refers to biological research which is intended for good and beneficial use, but could be potentially misused for harm.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Carrie Wolinetz is with the Association of American Universities. She says the dual-use problem isn't new - it's been discussed for over a decade. But all that talk didn't produce much action until this March. Mutant bird flu was big news, and the U. S. government issued a new policy to try to prevent this kind of panic in the future.

WOLINETZ: It does represent a knee jerk policy response to a situation that was playing out in a very high profile way.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The policy covers only government-funded research with 15 high-risk germs and toxins. It says before certain kinds of experiments are done, there has to be a risk-benefit analysis, and steps have to be taken to minimize risks. But Wolinetz says the four-page policy is vague, plus its limited list of pathogens means it wouldn't have caught some past experiments that raised concerns like one that made polio virus from scratch, and a mousepox study that showed how to make smallpox even more deadly.

WOLINETZ: Which to me raises the question of whether or not this policy really addresses the problem that we're trying to solve.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Plus the policy says some work might be classified or just not funded. Wolinetz says that could stifle important beneficial research. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It funded the controversial bird flu research.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: The government policy on dual use research concern, which will become the official policy, is still somewhat of a work in progress, though much progress has been made over the past few months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, flu researchers like Ron Fouchier don't know how to move forward. He's a scientist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. His bird flu study is the one that's just been published. He says one thing the new policy requires is quote "a risk mitigation plan."

DR. RON FOUCHIER: How far do we have to reduce hypothetical or real risks? Do we have to reduce that to zero, because zero is impossible. Then you might as well just kill all this research all together.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he thinks the government is struggling to find the right balance.

FOUCHIER: Whatever concerns there are in the U.S., they are for real and we need to handle that appropriately, but we are not having enough guidance as to what appropriate means, here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and other top flu experts around the world hope to get that kind of guidance soon. They've been waiting since January when they voluntarily agreed to hold off on certain bird flu experiments. All of these issues are sure to be high on the agenda next month when government-funded influenza researchers meet in New York. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

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